What are Stuck Points in Grief?

What are “stuck points”?

In 1992, researchers Resick and Schnicke first described the term “stuck points” in their work exploring PTSD. Whether or not the death of a loved one is experienced as traumatic, stuck points are still relevant to those who have experienced significant loss. 

Stuck points refer to thoughts that repeatedly bubble up in a person’s inner (and outer) dialogue that make it difficult for a person to process, cope with, or reconcile their experiences. To me, stuck points are like mean old trolls living under a bridge. Whenever a person tries to gain some momentum in working through their experiences, the troll comes up and says “Nope, you can’t pass. Now go back and think about what’s happened.”

Stuck points aren’t emotions, rather they’re thoughts that result in distressing emotion. For example, a person might have the thought, “I should have done more to save my loved one” and as a result, they feel guilt. 

Many grieving people struggle with memories and/or thoughts that have distressing emotional consequences, but when everything is so intertwined it’s common to interpret distressing thoughts and emotions as one and the same. This can complicate matters because (1) it can create a downward spiral of negative thoughts and emotions and (2) some people get so distracted by their emotions that they fail to address the underlying thought.

Resick and Schnicke specifically assert that stuck points may negatively impact sense of safety, trust, power, esteem, and intimacy. Especially, when these beliefs are fixed and rigid (i.e. inflexible). If you have a few minutes, check out the following video on the connection between thoughts, emotions, behaviors and stuck points.


Tell me more about how they arise:

There are two ways Cognitive Processing Therapists believe stuck points arise:

First:

A previously held belief is contradicted by the loss or trauma experience. Afterward, a person might get stuck trying to reconcile this dichotomy.

Example: A person experiences the death of a loved one due to violence. Before the death, the person believed the world was a safe and just place, but this event has violated that belief. Now the person is confused and worries they will never feel safe again. They become anxious, hopeless, fearful, and unsure of how to live their life given their new reality.

Second:

The loss event reinforces previously held negative beliefs and the person becomes further stuck within this negative belief.

Example: A person has little confidence they can handle stressful situations and emotions. After experiencing the death of a loved one, their fear of distressing grief-related thoughts and feelings exacerbates this belief and they experience increased anxiety and a low sense of self-worth. These feelings keep them from doing things that could help them cope with grief or find support, which continuously reinforces the thought that they can’t handle their grief.

 

How do I cope with stuck points?

Working through individual stuck points takes patience, perseverance, the courage to examine one’s thoughts and emotions, and the cognitive flexibility to change them.  Stuck points are unique to the individual and their experiences, so we encourage you to spend some time reflecting on any stuck points that may be impacting you in your grief and coping.

Also, try and notice the relationship between your thoughts and emotions.  A simple way to do this is to find a piece of paper and divide it down the middle.  On the top of the left-hand side write “When I have the thought that…” and on the top of the right-hand side write “I feel…”.  Then reflect back on the last week or so and try to identify some of the thoughts you’ve been having and their emotional consequences. If it’s easier for you, you can also start by identifying the feelings you’ve been having and then trace them back to the thoughts or situations that preceded them. 

At the very least, you’re likely to identify some of the thoughts and emotions that have been most challenging to you in your grief.  Perhaps these are areas where you will want to focus your coping – whether it’s through reading articles like this one, journaling, support groups, or one-on-one counseling.  Here on WYG, we’ve written about many different emotions and experiences, so we may have a resource to get you started. 

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November 7, 2019

18 responses on "What are Stuck Points in Grief?"

  1. My husband was shot 9 times at point blank range while sitting at work in 1992 and I am still grieving. He was my soulmate, the father of our three daughters. My brother, my only sibling, my hero, took his life in 2009 by walking into the path of an oncoming train. I am still in shock and riddled with guilt that I didn’t see any signs. I feel more depressed than ever even though I am on different medications for PTSD and closely monitored by an excellent psychiatrist. I guess I feel as though even though I’ve tried for years, it’s impossible for me to live a happy life

  2. thanks for this article

    whats your email for some questions?

  3. great and nice article

    thanks

  4. I lost my husband 5 years ago. He had lupus, which we considered a chronic condition that we dealt with as symptoms arose. I was on a trip to Europe with my sister and our daughters when my husband died. He had been in the hospital but insisted I go on my trip. He’d had numerous hospital stays in the previous few years and he would always be okay. The last thing he said to me was “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.” I still struggle with the guilt. My 23 year old son was home alone when he got the call to come in. I struggle with that guilt as well. My sister in law raced over and got me on the phone to tell me they couldn’t keep resuscitating him. He died while I was on the phone, thousands of miles away.
    I miss having someone who knows me as well as I know myself. Someone I can be myself with. I don’t think I’ve had a completely honest conversation with anyone since he died. There’s always something you hold back for worry of being judged. We were married 26 years. I thought we’d have 50. His parents both lived into their late 80’s and he was only 59. I’m too old to ever have the complete connection to someone else that I had with him. I’ve lost half my memories; I can no longer say “Do you remember that time we…” and I can’t confirm when or how something happened “that time”. I resent old couples walking hand in hand. I read obituaries and calculate how much more time everyone had than he did.

    • Ollie,
      I have lived through my first year in this state of grief. You transposed exactly what I want to say but don’t because my friends, coworkers and family can’t possibly understand. Not really. My husband died in Sept of 2018 painting a baby nursery. Heart attack at age 52. A year later I am just so lost. I feel everything you expressed.
      Thank you for sharing.

  5. I understand too well the onslaught of too many deaths in a short period of time. My mother died in 2017 followed by my father in law followed by a cousin and then followed by friends of my husband and I. All in all, we lost 6 people that year – my husband and I were going to a funeral on average every 2 months. In the middle of it all my son decided to get engaged (2 and half weeks after my mother died) and then get married 3 and a half weeks after my father in law died. It was all too much. My parents emigrated from their homeland and resided in a country (that although I am very grateful for the opportunities it has given me) whose culture was very different from my own. As I am an only child, I am now full time carer for my father – a task that is not easy – I live with one foot in each culture as my husband is a different cultural background. You are never the same after so many deaths but people expect you to be the same person you were previously and that is impossible. You yearn for the person you were, for the confidence you have lost, before being abandoned by your so called friends because they are unable to deal with your situation.

  6. Ditto all the comments above and BIG DITTO for the important work and resource being developed here. The PTSD connection is an interesting one for me and the ‘source’ for this was from a whole other place and space of influence as opposed to grief. But I get the ‘stuck’ part totally in the context of grief. The onslaught of events so close to each other made the process of becoming UNSTUCK so much harder. The death of my wife/best friend at age 59…after being together for 30 years. My Dad dying four months later. My/my wife’s beloved dogs dying. There is more…and the ‘hits’ kept on coming. I find I was much better at the start as possibly being comfortably numb and also banking on resilience to navigate out of the abyss. But then that became harder and harder…and an orchestrated mantra of messages from PTSD and Grief became a rhythm and sound track of thoughts and emotions. It helps me in some of my work as a content/writer developer for an ageing well institute in New Zealand.

  7. I, too, know I’m stuck, and don’t see a way out. My husband gave me everything no one else ever had. I miss him. I miss us. I miss the me I was when he was alive. My therapist obviously didn’t have the patience needed to help me try to work thru this. I’ve reached out to several therapists in my area and none have replied. Few friends accept me as I am now, and those same few are too busy with their own lives to be available when I need support. The only group near me only meets once a month. It’s hard enough living, having watched your loved one slowly slip away. Telling grievers they have to walk their path alone doesn’t help, and gives those around the permission they seek to walk away from us. I KNOW I can’t be fixed while living. Grief has moved in and won’t leave. I can tell myself it’s going to be a better day until I’m blue in the face, but every morning that I wake up to face another day without him will never be better.

    • Hi Barb, Your words are my words exactly. I lost my husband of 46 yrs 2.5 yrs ago and I miss him, I miss us and I do miss the me I was when we were together. I have spent hrs in prayer and attended a couple of grief groups. I’ve also been blessed by a wonderful therapist who has listened and helped me to realize all that I am experiencing is “normal.” I still cry every day, mostly in the late evening when we would cuddle, share thoughts about our day and just enjoy being near each other. We were truly the very best of friends. I write LOTS…I have poured out my heart (usually to him) about my life now, about every treasured moment we shared about what I have come to see more clearly since he died. I believe he continues to gift me with an understanding of myself and what value that amazing love continues to give me. I carry the very best of my wonderful husband in my heart and I share it with everyone in my life and I thank him and my precious God for giving me all those years with my sweet love.

  8. Sorry but I will be stuck in grief quicksand forever. Its been 1 year 2 months and not a day or hour goes by without getting “stuck”. Its just me and I know its never going to change. I am now 65 and its not a time for me to try and change what has taken that long to become me. My mind every day is a continuous loop of all that we went through from the shocking diagnosis to the end of a 38 year marriage in only 2 months. No it is not driving me crazy its just that all my days are so consumed with these thoughts and visuals. All done silently by me with me to me as I wear my outside mask to all around me looking like I am doing the best I can. I even now say that line and its a bold faced lie but nobody in my family wants to hear anything else. I am stuck forever in time and will never move on or forward.

    • You can move past the stuck point. I cared for my husband who was a lung transplant recipient for 7 years. I was attuned to his every nuance that could turn into deadly pneumonia. The process required the dedication of caring for a baby. We celebrated our 47th anniversary. Two days later, he had a very good physical therapy session at home. Afterwards, I got him a banana, a protein drink, and a sticky bun and left the house to run an errand. Less than an hour later, I walked back in the house and my son was on the phone with 911 and trying to administer CPR. My son had gone to check on his dad and found him slumped on the floor in front of his recliner. The EMTs came in right behind me and did what they could, but my husband was dead when they got there. My stuck point was “I wasn’t there when he died. I could have done something to save him if I had been there”. The hurt was how could he leave when I wasn’t there? We had been through sooo much together, but he left when I wasn’t there. “I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there!!”
      Actually there was nothing I could have done, they believed he died instantly of an aneurysm . I could have been sitting right beside him holding his hand and he would have died the same. I thought, well at least he could have died in my arms. He would be with me right to the end. But now, I wonder how that would have made me feel. Was it a mercy that I was not there? It would have been the one time that I could not have helped him. I would have felt so inadequate, so useless in the face of the death, the inevitable.

  9. I have experienced the unexpected death of my boyfriend & three years later my mother’s death with Alzheimer’s. I strongly disagree that “the expected death is easier.” Both are awful & turned my world upside down & shook me to the core.

  10. The articles come through – always at the moment they’re needed. Whether I know it or not.

  11. Grief is an individual experience and a person has to find their own way through it. It is certain when one is born, they will die. They say “expected” or “prepared” deaths are easier, such as long-term Alzheimer’s and old age, but it also depends how close you were to the person. No amount of “expectation” or “preparation” can lessen the impact other than it not being a surprise. Death by crime of violence will obviously have a far worse impact than death by old age and cancer; still, it depends how close and *dependent* you were on the person, especially for livelihood. Caregiver can become financially dependent on caring for the person with Alzheimer’s because their social security will pay their bills in exchange for around-the-clock care. If this goes on for years the person will have to go back to the job market, and may find that very difficult due to age and being out of the work force for so long Bottom line eventually the person has to pave their way to adapt to circumstances and just keep on living.

  12. I would love to get a copy of this article to save and print if at all possible. I run a grief support center for kiddos and their families and think this would be a great piece to share with the families/adults of the kiddos that attend. I also feel it would be helpful when applying for grants as we are a 501(c)3. Our foundation is the Mourning Sun Children’s Foundation in Apple Valley CA. Thank you for your time, Jennifer

  13. This article makes a lot of sense and is helpful! I have been working with mindfulness techniques to note when I’m thinking of my stuck points, recognize them, and let them go. It has been helping and especially at night when I tend to ruminate.
    Thank you for your good work!!!

  14. Many of your articles have been beneficial to me but this one on stuck points has opened my eyes so much. This is exactly how I have spent the last 5 years. Literally can’t get away from certain thoughts and have felt more crazy every day. I thought of these things constantly & nighttime was the absolute worst. Maybe now I can focus and rid my mind of all of it.

  15. This is EXCELLENT and really resonated with me. Thank you so much for sharing! The video is very helpful too.

    Guilt is absolutely a major stuck point in 2 of my losses. Another strong emotion is anger. I was so angry at the way my mother acted after my dad died that it wasn’t allowing me to grieve my dad.

    The emotion that the world is no longer a safe place is SO TRUE. It rocks your world.

    Thank you again for this information! Super helpful

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